Old Buildings, New Life

Compared with most other academic buildings, facilities dedicated to science are at the high end of the renovation cost continuum.

Limitations posed by a facility's superstructure might prevent building expansion, the creation of a new exterior opening or the relocation of load-bearing walls.

When the State of Kansas Board of Regents named its bond initiative the “Crumbling Classrooms Campaign,” its goal was obvious. It hoped to breathe new life into dilapidated classrooms and establish learning environments that would serve Kansas students for generations to come. Renovation was the preferred route.

That was the case at Fort Hays State University, Fort Hays, Kan., where one of the school's science facilities, Albertson Hall, has been renovated — all four floors; all 75,000 square feet. State-of-the-art science classrooms and laboratories are operating in what was abandoned, vacant and unusable space.

The building was renovated at a cost of $92 per square foot, compared with the $120 to $160 per square foot spent on most new academic science facilities. As a result, 72-year-old Albertson Hall is a model project not only for the Kansas Crumbling Classrooms Campaign, but also for institutions across the nation upgrading science facilities.

Build or Renovate?

For administrators and educators deciding whether to build or renovate, three main factors need to be considered:

  • The intended use of the building.

  • The availability of classroom space throughout campus.

  • The cost of renovating the existing building, compared with the cost of building a new facility.

The intended building use is crucial because of associated cost implications. Compared with most other academic buildings, facilities dedicated to science are at the high end of the renovation cost continuum — as high as $240 per square foot.

The higher cost derives from the unique requirements of science buildings. For example, laboratories need more air changes per hour than do other portions of the building. This often means that laboratory spaces should have an HVAC system separate from the building's overall system.

Building, fire and life-safety codes, as well as the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) significantly affect renovation costs, and determine the feasibility of renovation.

Classroom availability also is part of the equation. Generally speaking, if a college or university has ample classroom space, renovation becomes more feasible. Administrators can use classrooms in other campus buildings while the renovation is completed. If classrooms are in short supply, administrators are more likely to build a new facility.

Cost analysis plays a role in the decision. Most cost analyses focus on three areas: site, superstructure and infrastructure. When the intended use of an older building is scientific education, the superstructure and infrastructure are often deciding factors whether to renovate or build.

Site considerations are negligible when renovating an existing building. New construction can occur at the site of an existing building, after the old building is demolished, or on a different site. The prospect of a land purchase could push administrators toward renovation.

Limitations posed by a facility's superstructure (including the exterior walls, window systems, roofing systems and the interior load-bearing walls) might prevent building expansion, the creation of a new exterior opening or the relocation of load-bearing walls.

For a facility designed for academic sciences, infrastructure includes HVAC systems; cabling; lab exhausting and piping (including acid waste piping) for independent laboratories; sprinkling systems; computer technology raceways; and hub rooms. Infrastructure issues to address when considering renovation: What components of the infrastructure can be used? Does the existing infrastructure allow floor-to-ceiling heights that will accommodate the latest technology and systems? Will the superstructure be compatible with the infrastructure that the administrators need to create?

A Common Problem

A majority of universities today have buildings like Albertson Hall — facilities with inflexible superstructures and inadequate infrastructures.

Constructed in 1928, Albertson Hall has been used for science instruction and has had both classrooms and labs. Originally, the building housed a variety of sciences: biology, agriculture, geology and chemistry.

In 1993, Fort Hays State constructed a new sciences building and moved the geology and chemistry departments to the new facility. At the time, it was assumed that the biology and agriculture departments would expand into the vacated spaces inside Albertson.

Time passed, and the abandoned spaces in Albertson remained empty. Several years later, when the biology and agriculture departments were ready to expand, they found that neither the space nor the interior finishes were adequate to meet their needs.

By the time a project team was assembled, the Kansas Board of Regents had already completed its cost analysis on Albertson Hall and determined that renovation would be more cost-effective than new construction.

Infrastructure Challenges

Renovating Albertson brought about many infrastructure challenges. The design had to integrate new building systems and technology infrastructure within the constraints of existing floor-to-floor dimensions. It needed to maximize the amount of daylight let into the facility and incorporate future flexibility.

Albertson Hall's finished floor-to-ceiling span of only 9 feet, 2 inches, and on rare occasions 9 feet, 6 inches, presented the project team with its greatest challenge: Where to put the infrastructure?

In a modern building, floor-to-ceiling heights are as much as three feet greater than those available in Albertson, and the head-end equipment — things like HVAC systems, cabling, laboratory exhaust piping, sprinkling systems, technology raceways and hub rooms — would be installed above the ceiling. In Albertson, the project team located the head-end equipment in a prefabricated rooftop penthouse, which was aligned with newly constructed vertical chases throughout the building.

The low floor-to-ceiling clearances posed an additional challenge in terms of the independent HVAC systems required for each laboratory.

Each floor had a main trunk corridor with eight-foot ceilings and a main trunk line running above the corridor that contained all the old ductwork. The project team developed lower ceiling details and articulated a new architectural space. It created coffered ceilings and spaces in the main trunk lines adequate to contain fan coil units, each lab's HVAC equipment and exhausting for all labs into the main trunk line.

Bringing in new technology is imperative in the majority of academic renovations. In Albertson Hall, every renovated classroom contains video capabilities and personal computers with Internet access. In the large lecture halls, there are pathways to accommodate the eventual installation of distance-learning technology.

It's impossible to accurately anticipate the infrastructure needs that technology will impose in the future, so the facility design allows for maximum capacity and future expansion: the greatest possible number of cable trays, extra capacity for pathways, oversize hub rooms and classrooms outfitted with additional outlets and additional data outlet boxes, each complete with conduit and pull-string.

Albertson Hall also faced other renovation compliance challenges: elevators opening into stair towers and elevator equipment rooms sitting in the bottom of stair towers, for example. Since the renovation involved infilling a courtyard, the project also encountered challenges associated with adding square footage to an existing nonconforming building.

To maximize daylight and the quality of circulation spaces, the main entrance was reopened. In doing so, a portion of the second floor was removed to create a two-story volume at the entrance and an open balcony to the second-floor main corridor.

The internal enclosed stairs and walls were removed to open the corridors to light and dramatically improve spatial quality. New lighting in the main corridors consists of pendant fixtures, wall sconces and cold cathode lighting. The new lighting design throughout the building provides more varied lighting capabilities and more task-oriented lighting.

Smith is principal of HTK Architects, Topeka, Kan. The firm worked on the Fort Hays State University project.

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